I wrote a painful post using a horrible, hackneyed metaphor about God as an artist. Now it is gone, thank goodness, and instead I just want to ask a few questions.
In Doctrine and Covenants, God says, “It is not meet that I should command in all things.”
Joseph Smith said, “I teach the people correct principles and let them govern themselves.”
It seems to me that the implications in these two statements should be central in working towards what Mormons believe is God’s ultimate goal for us: to learn everything God has to teach. Yet self-governance and acting on one’s own are not common subject matter at church. Instead it’s obey obey follow obey, when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you don’t understand. Got a question? Ultimately, obedience is the answer.
Who does God obey?
Who was there by God’s side every step of the way, instructing God in every aspect of life until finally, the last instruction was checked off, and through obedience, God became God?
If this process sounds shallow and simplistic compared to the depth and intelligence we envision in the supreme beings we call Parents, how is it going to improve humanity?
What if there’s something about the process of becoming better that requires more than the ability to do as we’re told?
Can we talk about it?
If it’s true that God cares about our obedience so very much, then your question of whom God obeys seems to me to have two possible, and wildly divergent, answers:
1. God became God through perfect obedience to the next god up the chain of command in some infinite chain of gods. That suggests that whoever currently serves in the position of “God” does so because of a history of absolute adherence to a set of constant, unchanging laws. If this is true, then we really are becoming more like God when we focus our attention on obedience, but for what? In this picture, God resembles a robot. Who wants to become a robot for all eternity?
2. God created the rules and obeys no one, but we nevertheless are expected to obey God. If this is true, then our becoming “like God” is ultimately superficial: we resemble God in that we adhere to the same rules God does, but we reach that god-like state in a way that’s very different from how God reached it. God came up with all the ideas; we don’t do anything original for ourselves. Our job is to follow God’s lead.
So either God is kind of robotic and wants us to be robotic too, or God is awesomely creative, but we can never be equally awesomely creative if we want God to approve of us. I don’t like either option. Maybe it’s worth considering the possibility that God doesn’t seek our obedience as much as scripture-writers would have us believe?
That’s my conclusion.
I just realized I left out a possibility:
3. We can be just as awesomely creative as God is about what rules to follow–we can write our own moral code and adhere to it, without consulting God–as long as the moral code we come up with just happens to be identical to what God came up with. But while possible, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening. So again, as you suggested in your post, it’s looking like the path to becoming god-material has to include more than obedience.
As for what that “more” would be, I’m reminded of a commentary I learned on Deuteronomy 17:18, the bit where a ruler, as soon as he ascends to the throne, is instructed to write a copy of the law for himself. The question came up: why should the king undergo the laborious task of copying the law, especially if there are other copies already available? The answer was that the king, as an arbiter of the law, must make the law his own, or he’ll be no good as a king. To make the law your own, you have to know very exactly what it contains, but you also have to develop your own interpretation of it.
While writing this, I considered that part of the reason simply obeying may be insufficient to help us become like God is that it doesn’t leave much room for making the law your own, at least with the current strictness that is emphasized. If we give to the poor because we are commanded, the commandment is fulfilled and we learn obedience, which is of course good. But, as God may not have the quality of obedience, but instead the quality of truly understanding all the circumstances that lead to poverty, sympathy and love for the impoverished, etc, simply obeying without exploring on our own may not even get us halfway there. Such exploration that leads to true understanding and belief on a personal level may involve being able to make a break from popularly taught ways of thinking about the subject, which may be difficult or impossible if one is focused on obedience to the point of being afraid to even think anything that is not already affirming what the commandment teaches.
Agreed! I get how a leader of a large, unruly group of people may find it useful to preach obedience in emergencies, when there just isn’t time for anything else. But when there *is* time for more, then you have to show how the law is based on universal understanding of (and love for) others, and you have to help each student develop his or her own thoughts about why the system of rules is designed the way it is. Obedience is a teacher’s crutch, and crutches can be useful, but they’re not the ideal.
Ultimately, teaching obedience is inefficient. The basic lessons about understanding and loving other humans serve as premises from which a well-trained student should be able to derive independently all the other worthwhile laws. Of *course* you ought to provide for the impoverished, because you can imagine what’s it’s like to be in that position and because you know it could happen to anyone, and because you *care*. Anyone who is well-educated about human experiences and who has developed his or her sympathy muscle can figure that out without being told to obey a law about providing for the poor. And that same student will be able to figure out what else people ought to do for each other, too, without needing instruction in every little thing.
One of the things that I’ve always puzzled over is this obey God thing. The way we describe God and require adoration/obedience, always viewing him in term above ourselves in a sense of bowing and worship. This has always felt a little uncomfortable to me. If he’s my father why would he want me to view and interact with him this way? As a parent that’s certainly not what I want/expect/desire from my kids! It just always felt like a weird parent/child relationship. I want/hope my kids love me, want to engage and listen to my perspectives/thoughts/ experiences…. but I don’t want them to fear/worship me.
2000 years ago, families actually were expected to obey the father. In some places, he had the power of life and death over the whole family. When I read the Bible and look back over history, I see that people have often treated God similarly to how they would treat a father. Our expectations for our relationship with God have changed as our expectations for families have changed. 2000 years ago, love was considered a bonus to be hoped for in a family, but priority number one was survival, and in many places this was expressed in a strict social hierarchy, even within the family. I think that a lot of the dissonance some people experience right now similar to what you are describing has its roots in the incredible rate of change we’ve experienced in how we see fathers during the past seventy years or so. Dads are increasingly expected to be full participants in child rearing and home life, expected to express their love regularly and openly, when it wasn’t that way even 100 years ago. A lot of religion hasn’t adjusted fast enough to let people see God that way, or they’ve adjusted part way, preaching simultaneously that God is a loving father involved with each individual on a personal level, and that he is an authority figure that demands respect and strict obedience with horrible punishments for those who don’t obey. I want to do more research in this area, but from what I know so far, it seems like a solid theory.
I draw a firm line between obeying God, and obeying those that imagine that they speak for Him, yet only speak for themselves. Scripture clearly teaches that there is not always “one right way” to be obedient. In Art school I learned many “rules” that were necessary to increase my abilities. But the instructor once said, “If you just follow the rules I will never give you an ‘A.’ That grade is reserved for those that know the rules – and know when it is appropriate to break them.” Like the keeping of the sabbath, Christ spoke very clearly how there are exceptions to rules. And, Christ had much to say to the strict rule observers in His day.
That’s what my cheesy artist analogy said before I trashed it. 🙂 What teacher hopes to bring students to a higher level of understanding and skill, yet only requires that they copy the teacher’s work or follow detailed instructions?
Unfortunately, LOTS of “teachers” expect strict observances. That’s how “good boys and girls” are measured – and rewarded or punished. Unfortunately, in the current systems of many religious organizations, Corporation and religion have become bedfellows. Some things in society definitely have changed, but many religious teaching is still a very much a hierarchy. I am primary caregiver of my children. Teaching them to think for themselves has been a fundamental principle I have stressed. It helps inoculate them from disillusionment and frailness of mind, especially when life doesn’t go like “the plan.” 🙂